Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Enlightenment, Voltaire, Religion


When the Toulouse parliament condemned Jean Calas to death on March 9, 1762, and had him executed on the following day, Voltaire took up his pen to denounce what he saw as a brutal act of intolerance against a Protestant. Although Henry IV had signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, guaranteeing freedom of conscience for all religions, Louis XIV revoked this edict in 1685 and claimed Catholicism as the one official religion of France. Already well known for his anticlericalism, Voltaire questioned a number of religious practices. But in his Traite sur la tolerance he does not reject religion so much as he presents an idealized form of it that converges with the secular notion of justice he is trying to protect. The question, as he poses it in the Traite sur la tolerance, is to "examiner si la religion doit etre charitable ou barbare" ( examine whether the true religious spirit is more consistent with charity or with cruelty). Voltaire's answer to this question reveals his own form of religion. By examining both tendencies inherent in religion, Voltaire presents a choice between justice and injustice, humanity and inhumanity that, through his ironic treatment of the subject, is largely determined in advance.